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Fifty Years Ago

My old nemesis sarcoidosis resurfaced after decades of absence, just to put the cherry on top of a year of aches and pains and a scary infection that put me in the hospital last Christmas among space-suited intensive-care medical staff whose other patients were kung flu victims. Dodged that bullet, took the vaccine when offered vulnerable oldsters — despite some concern about interaction with the sarcoidosis — and kept on keeping on. More or less. Fifty years ago it was worse.

February 13, 1972. Gray, not as cold as it has been but a cold wind prowling. The snow from last Sunday is almost gone; midday temperatures reached 34 over the week, just enough to let midday sun melt the snow. All hunting seasons are over; the job here has played out so that now it is just a paycheck. We went to the Eastern Outdoor Show and I purchased a 7½-foot Fenwick fly rod at the Kelly’s Sport Shop exhibit for $27; list about $50. I vacillated through two trout seasons in this Pennsylvania trout-stream paradise. Now I feel a stir of anticipation to try it — something to do until hunting season. I looked at dry flies, streamers, creels, landing nets — at least as much paraphernalia as a duck hunter. I purchased streamers and dry flies (Adams, Blue Dun, Coachman) and double taper fly line for the South Bend Finalist reel.

February 15, I practiced casts with the DT-5-F line and a 3x tippet in the backyard. Not disastrous. The rod balances like air in the hand. Prognosis: hopeful…

HIATUS: THREE-MONTHS

May 12, 1972 — Okay. I have been out of the hospital three weeks this second time and the drain hole in my side finally closed. The railroad-track stitching across the right side of my abdomen is pink and healthy. This will be my first fly-fishing entry after an unplanned three-month medical hiatus. I am trying to get on a routine of that anti-inflammatory medicine for the lymph infection (sarcoidosis) they diagnosed after the first surgery, a biopsy that left a little scar below my throat. The blinding fatigue and joint pain that dogged me since our summer trip to Georgia, when I had to buy a cane to get in and out of the truck, is finally explained.

The second surgery, hard on the heels of the biopsy, removed my gall bladder, which rebelled as soon as I was out of the hospital the first time. Bruce Desfor, my attorney, wants a doctor to say violent torque from the December rear-end collision wrenched my internal organs so badly my gall bladder was damaged; hence the at-fault driver’s insurance should pay through the nose. But he can’t get a doctor to say that; he already couldn’t get a doctor to say the blow to my head against the truck window that concussed me carved this big chunk out of my hearing and left me perpetually ringing ears and whiplash. The state insurance commissioner is pushing “no fault” automobile insurance; I wrote a series about it. Bruce, president of the state trial lawyers association, took my case to show me the error of giving no-faulters too much ink.

I went into the hospital the first time with my ankles swelled up twice their size and joints aching like arthritis. I volunteered for the Hershey bureau, close to home, so low-stress a cripple should be able to handle it. I walked (hobbled) into a chocolate worker’s strike at the Hershey plant. The guy I replaced had been covering up the labor strife because of a public-relations job offer from Hershey. The Associated Press picked up my story and it went national. The union was happy; Hershey Corp. was not. I followed with a story about a reconstructive surgeon who chose practice at Hershey Medical Center because antiquated chocolate machinery provided as many limb reconstruction projects as a Vietnam field hospital without getting shot at. The company really hated that story and got it spiked. I discovered our publisher’s home loan at two percent through Hershey Corp.’s tame bank, probably helped spike the hand-surgeon; Lionel said forget even trying to write the boss’s sweetheart house loan but did say even crippled, I was a hell of a reporter — heady praise from the old lion.

The doctors poked and probed. Exhaustion, night sweats, feeling overheated — eventually they ruled out everything but something called sarcoidosis, or Hodgkin’s lymphoma. X-rays revealed a mass of distended lymph nodes on the outside of my lungs. The biopsy made it sarcoid — less fearsome than Hodgkins, treatable with massive doses of steroids. The first April Saturday of the trout season, it rained cats and dogs. I watched from the windows of my room at Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, keeping my left arm carefully immobile where the IV into my hand had become painfully infected. Pillows under my knees eased the gall bladder pain that pushed right through the pain medication. They got my fever down, the infection under control, a week in the doing. I had fought the gall bladder pain so stubbornly at home that I did a number on myself. I finally woke Wanda after the third sleepless night, pretty much delirious, and said I give up. The ER people had to dope me up heavily to put me under.

I had a second violent attack a week later, the afternoon before scheduled surgery. A giant Negro orderly, impatient because he was supposed to be off already, was shaving my entire body. He started from the neck down, smearing shaving cream and swishing that straight razor faster and faster. When he got between my legs, pushing my balls roughly out of the way, my gall bladder tried to throw a stone. I woke up back on IVs, loaded with painkiller. Surgery was postponed again. Finally Dr. LaRosa, one of Wanda’s boss’s best knife men, did the work. (A big-game hunter, he told her I was well-marbled with fat as some bears he field-dressed. Thanks, Doc.) The memory of tubes down my nose into my belly sucking bile noisily into a translucent receptacle; the sting of antibiotics in the IV solution I lived on in lieu of food — make the very brain cells that hold the memory cringe. The pathologist came to meet me, saying he had never seen a person young as me with a gall bladder as bad.

So finally, trout-fishing: my self-prescription for recovery. Pennsylvania put on one of its finest days this spring. I did not get any trout. I did get my flies hung up in stream-side brush, in trees across the creek an old timer identified as hemlocks. He said this was his thirtieth season; his old-ivory-colored wooden fly-rod is thirty years old. “Nothing to it,” he described fly-fishing. “It’s easier than spin casting.” He took two on streamers and told me dry flies would not be useful until later, he had seen no hatches.

Bill Penniwell, assistant city editor, is a fly-tier. He visited me in the hospital with a gift of hand-tied flies, since I had given him duck feathers to work with. I was touched; anybody can buy flowers but hand-tied trout flies are special. So of course I threw one of his Muddler Minnows away into the hemlocks on my first abortive cast. Then I snagged a commercial Royal Wulff on my back cast. Then a commercial Marabou streamer; my stream-side etymology still is horribly sparse. I stumbled enough in the creek in my hip boots to put down the dumbest hatchery rainbow.

But I finally made satisfactory roll casts on the advice of the old-timer, and then a few satisfactory short straight casts, and really gave that Marabou a workout. The stream was clear and ice-cold and powerful. I concentrated wholly on the slender wand in my hand, the fat fly line on the water and the invisible leader. The sun dappled through and insects buzzed and the stream positively raved over the smooth stones with the simple joy of flowing.

I talked to two other fishermen; talk seems to come easily and naturally to trout hunters. I encountered no sullenness in spite of (a) brand-new equipage or (b) my new-hatched beard, rebellion against having my whole body shaved clean as a newborn’s. On the stream, I worked at forgetting memories of IVs, tubes down my throat, and two awakenings in the recovery room with quarts of saliva to sponge away from my face with inadequate tissues; plus strange dead areas in my body, a stiff neck, and my back hurting.

“It’s just good to be out,” said one of the gents, who hated to leave so badly he went home and got his camp stove and came back and brewed a pot of stream-side coffee, and stayed on.

”Especially sweet to me,” I said.

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Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.